What is Innovation?
The bandwagon called “innovation” continues to gather momentum across Asia-Pacific Japan, with more and more companies realizing that the only way to avoid the same fate as the dinosaurs is to ensure they revitalize their products and services and stay ahead of their competition. Using innovation to address the gap between natural, entropy-driven declines in revenue and the aspirational revenue and growth curve demanded by stakeholders and shareholders is becoming a universal business imperative.
If the innovation bandwagon hasn’t rolled past you yet, it might be timely to look at what innovation is or could be. Recently I have seen some very interesting and varied items appearing under the heading of “innovation”:
- Chinese scientists are developing a new type of submarine that ejects high pressure gas out of its nose cone, which then forms a bubble of water vapour around the sub, dramatically cutting down the hydraulic drag component. The estimates are that they could achieve supersonic speeds under the water, and revolutionise shipping and passenger delivery.
- Amazon know so much about their customers’ buying behaviours that they are starting to re-organise their distribution network so that the most likely goods to be purchased are closer to the customers who might purchase them, even to the point of stocking vans that park in central locations in order to cut down delivery times. Not quite Yesterday Shipping but getting closer.
- One of our consultants working on a project in the UK would regularly purchase pizza for lunch, but had no way of reheating the leftover pizza for dinner later that night. He realized that the hotel room iron provided just the right amount of heat and could be temperature controlled, and that the pizza box could be turned into a mini-oven, thus reheating the pizza and saving money and food wastage.
All these things have one thing in common – a problem or constraint that must be solved. All our key innovations we have today arose from problems being solved. The non-stick coating on your frying pan was originally a way to stop astronauts being roasted as they re-entered Earth’s atmosphere (from one type of cooking – bad – to another type of cooking – good!). Many of our innovations were born in military research – the internet is a classic example. The challenge was to create a computer and communications network that had no central “brain” and could therefore withstand a significant attack.
When Thomas Edisson perfected the lightbulb, he was trying to solve the problem of how to provide light in the dark without having to use a dangerous flame. He was also looking for a “killer app” to help sell more electricity. But what if he’d worked out a way to help us see in the dark instead? What would the world look like then? Later tonight, after the sun goes down, I challenge you to look around your house or office, and out the window, and imagine what our world would be like if we could all see in the dark – cars would not need headlights. Houses would not need internal lighting. Streetlights would be superfluous. Sporting matches could be played at any hour. Sunset would simply be the departure of the sun and its warmth and energy. Imagine the reduction in carbon emissions we could achieve!
Apple didn’t invent the MP3 format, nor did they have the first MP3 player. However they looked carefully at the problems around portable music and realized that the main friction point was how to easily get music onto an MP3 player. Their key innovation was to create iTunes and a level of vertical integration that included not only an easy way to sync content onto devices, but a store to buy the content from as well. Thus, whether you love it or hate it, iTunes was born and remains key to Apple’s ongoing success and sticky customer base.
Is innovation therefore just problem solving?
The problems I’m trying to solve in my role at SAP come from the fact that SAP makes a wide variety of business process tools that are all somewhat standard – and yet our customers are like snowflakes – every one of them is unique and different in many ways. Whilst our software is highly configurable and can cater for an extremely wide range of requirements, it never ceases to amaze me how unique and different each customers’ business challenges are. I worry at times that we are losing the art of having those deep, meaningful, business challenge conversations with our customers.
The co-founder of Google Maps gave an interview recently where he summed up his view on innovation – focus on the key problem, be maniacal about what the customer wants, be prepared for things to go wrong, and never ever give up. Innovation is about understanding the problem, and solving it.
I encourage you to comment on this blog in 25 words or less on the key business challenges you face in your business today. Do you have a technology partner who is keen to listen to your challenges, and suggest the equivalent of an iron in a hotel room to help you elegantly and simply solve your challenges? That, my friends, is the essence of innovation.
Cameron Berkman is the Head of Innovation Adoption for SAP Services across Asia-Pacific Japan, and lives in Sydney.